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Pritika Chowdhry uses memory maps to rethink contours of the Indian subcontinent

With the exhibition Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories at South Asia Institute, Chicago, Pritika Chowdhry mines unsutured wounds carved by the 1947 partition of India.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Oct 29, 2022

The amicability of the adage - personal is political and political is personal - to hold a true value is uncontested. The fixity of when and where the axiom is transplanted seldom reduces its inherited power to speak truth to the power. The dense, as well as intense production of celluloid, literature and visual art produced as a response to the aftermaths of the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, is a reflection of the inevitable engagement of the personal self with the political milieu. Determined by the turbulent moment of 1947 partition, the personal loss borne by several families shaped the rest of their lives. To leaf through the annals of history around the making of an independent India is to navigate the maps of memory in an effort to bring home the pain of unsutured deep scars carved by the fault lines of borders.

Chicago-based artist, curator, and writer Pritika Chowdhry, with her large-scale art installations exhibited nationally and internationally in group and solo exhibitions, revisits the history of the 1947 partition to understand that the act of reconciliation with a disturbing past is incomplete without reminiscing about the wrongs committed by the high politics. For Chowdhry, the founding event of the 1947 partition could not be contained in the pages of history when its ramifications failed to punctuate the social milieu and cultural fabric of the current-day Indian subcontinent, not a few, but many times. With the ongoing exhibition Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories at South Asia Institute in Chicago, Chowdhry attempts to explore and expand the critical vocabulary on diversity, harmony, inclusion and integrations. In this interview, I speak to the India-born American artist about the compelling concerns – both personal and political - and how she translates them into her practice.

An Archive of 1919: The Year of the Crack-Up, 2010-2012, Etched and enamelled brass spittoons, bricks, Pritika Chowdhry | Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories | STIRworld
An Archive of 1919: The Year of the Crack-Up, 2010-2012, Etched and enamelled brass spittoons, bricks Image: Courtesy of South Asia Institute

Dilpreet Bhullar: As a socio-political, feminist artist, the history of the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent defines your art practice. Could you walk us through your interests in it?

Pritika Chowdhry: I came to the 1947 partition of India as a subject while researching the causes of 9/11 in 2001 and the Gujarat Pogrom in 2002. I was born and brought up in India and moved to the US in 1999 at the age of 26. So, I clearly remember the demolition of the Babri Mosque and its fallout. At that time, I naively believed in India as a secular country, but the rise of the Hindu right in the 1990s seriously undermined that belief. In the US, things changed drastically after 9/11 for South Asians and Middle Easterners. Concurrently, sectarian divisions were becoming deeper in India.

My knowledge of the 1947 partition up until then was based on films and tv serials. The Gujarat riots felt like an uncanny replay or re-creation of the partition violence I had seen in the films and tv serials. It was then that I started asking my mother about our family’s history and experience of the partition. My mother’s family are Sindhis from Karachi, and they moved to New Delhi in the heat of the partition riots in August 1947.

My father’s side are Bengalis from Calcutta and they witnessed the first partition of Bengal in 1905, and the sectarian violence that occurred in the city of Calcutta leading up to the 1947 partition, and most of his family moved to Lucknow soon after.

I had the opportunity to attend a graduate seminar on Cultural Memory, in which I learnt about the Holocaust and the memory discourse in the West.  I rigorously researched the history of the partition and the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War through academic works, literature, historical fiction, and works of feminist historiography, all of which helped me to build a conceptual framework for the Partition Anti-Memorial Project.

Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories, Sculptural Poem, 2022, Pritika Chowdhry | Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories | STIRworld
Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories, 2022, Sculptural Poem Image: Courtesy of South Asia Institute

Dilpreet: The concept of anti-memorial or counter-monumental commemoration finds a crucial space in your large-scale works, especially Broken Column: The Monuments of Forgetting. Would you like to dig deeper into it, and how the nuanced meaning of this idea translates into your practice?

Pritika: Yes, the inter-related concepts of anti-memorials and counter-memories are central to my immersive art practice. Monuments are often created by the government or state actors and embody a narrative of nationalism to portray the nation-state in a heroic light. Anti-memorials on the other hand, are often created by individuals and critique the nation-state by bringing attention to the narratives that do not necessarily glorify the nation-state. For example, the systematic use of rape as a weapon in 1947 and 1971 is one such narrative that often gets elided from the didactic narratives of these monuments.

These are the counter-memories of a nation, or counter-histories, as Michele Foucault coined the term, and are usually left out of traditional monuments, or are actively overwritten and erased, as per the nation-state’s agenda. In other words, they are forgotten. To remember or memorialise these counter-memories is an act of individual resistance and I undertake this fraught endeavour by creating anti-memorials. As the term suggests, they are antithetical to traditional monuments, physically and intellectually. Their scale is often life-size, rather than larger than life. Their materials are often fragile or durational, and they are by nature, temporary.

Installation view for Broken Column and The Masters Tongues, Pritika Chowdhry | Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories | STIRworld
Installation view for Broken Column and The Masters Tongues Image: Courtesy of South Asia Institute

The Broken Column work triangulates significant monuments in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and consists of silicone and latex casts of small sections of these monuments. The monuments in this project are the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, the Martyred Intellectuals Memorial in Dhaka, the Jalladkhana Memorial in Mirpur, the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka, and the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial in Amritsar. I aim to include a few more significant monuments in this project over the next few years.

Latex and silicone casts of sections of the monuments such as stairs, walls, doors, niches, and ornaments, capture details and textures of intimate spaces within the larger architecture. I think of these casts as the “skin” of the monuments, which reveal every mark, stain, and blemish that has accumulated on their surfaces since they were constructed. In this visceral and abject form, these casts can allude to the counter-memories that are elided from these monuments and are thus able to function as an anti-memorial. I think of these monuments as “sites of memory” or lieu de memoire in Pierre Nora’s words and they are rich with collective memories of the partitions of 1947 and 1971.

The Broken Column project investigates how collective memories of the partitions of 1947 and 1971 are made legible or erased through these monuments. These relational sites of memory are architectural palimpsests where memories of multiple events have sedimented over time. These national monuments are complicit in creating a narrative that aggrandizes the nation and fail to acknowledge or memorialise the trauma that the women of the three countries endured during these violent events, by actively eliding or forgetting it.

Installation view: Broken Column, The Master’s Tongues and This Handful of Dust, Pritika Chowdhry | Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories | STIRworld
Installation view: Broken Column, The Master’s Tongues, and This Handful of Dust Image: Courtesy of South Asia Institute

Dilpreet: The titles of your large-scale installations carry an inescapable resonance with the cinema and literature produced on the history of the 1947 partition. This tool of intertextuality seeks to draw a thread of connection across the three creative mediums of expression. When its usage, more often than not, is dubbed as a redundant reading of a slice of history, how does it work to instrumentalise the meaning-making exercise in your practice?

Pritika: Good question! For me, the intertextual citation is an artistic strategy for creating multiple layers of meanings. I often title my works in two parts as “main title: sub-title.” Usually, one of these parts makes an intertextual reference to a literary or academic work, or a film, to shape the meaning of my work in certain ways. Much like when a scholar or academician writes an original paper, they cite the published research in their field of work to build their arguments and support their conclusions. Similarly, as a research-based artist, I use the titles of my artworks to cite the cultural works that were made before and to suggest connections and interpretations to the viewer.

For example, the Broken Column project is titled after Attia Hossain’s historical fiction novel, Sunlight on a Broken Column.  The novel is a beautiful work about the coming of age of a young Muslim girl in the turbulent times of the partition, in Lucknow. Hossain does not make any reference to the use of rape in the 1947 partition riots. The titling strategy is a poetic citation and homage to a Muslim feminist writer that came before me. And of course, the subtitle, Monuments of Forgetting, is my own.

As another example, the subtitle of the Queering Mother India anti-memorial is History is a Woman’s Body, which is the title of a chapter in Urvashi Butalia’s feminist historiography of the partition, The Other Side of Silence. Similarly, in What the Body Remembers anti-memorial, the main title cites Shauna Singh Baldwin’s novel about the gendered experience of partition violence, but the subtitle, The Invisible Women is my own. And, in Silent Waters, the main title references Sabiha Sumar’s iconic post-partition movie, Khamosh Pani, but the sub-title, The Uncounted is my own and refers to the high numbers of displaced people on both sides of the border and the high casualty figures of the partition riots that could not be apprehended accurately at that time due to lack of infrastructural resources to do so.

A closer view of Lines of Control, Game of Chess, Pritika Chowdhry | Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories | STIRworld
A closer view of Lines of Control, Game of Chess Image: Courtesy of South Asia Institute

Dilpreet: What is interesting about your installation works, which accentuate immersive experience for the audience, is the presence of the material objects and sonic values – collected over a period of time. This twin presence acts as a metaphor to further the art of visual narrative developed through your practice. Could you talk about this observation?

Pritika: Thank you for highlighting this aspect of my work. I have a deep interest in film and theatre, and I marvel at how sound, music, and lighting are harnessed in movies and theatrical productions to create an immersive experience for viewers. In grad school, I took a class in set design in the theatre department to further hone my skills in creating environments for my art installations.

For example, the Silent Waters anti-memorial, I created a minimalist soundscape that accompanies this installation and comprises the sounds of rain, running feet, and a body falling into the water, presumably a well. This soundscape plays quietly in the background in the installation and alludes to the hushed stories of defiled women jumping into the village well to commit suicide and save the family honour have become a cultural trope in the collective memory of the partition.

In Remembering the Crooked Line anti-memorial, I juxtapose nine partitions of the 20th century side-by-side, India, Palestine, Ireland, Cyprus, Germany, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, and the proposed partition of Iraq, as examples of the continuing use of the Partition motif along ethnic lines.

In addition to the artistic strategies of material referentiality, evocative sculptural forms that reference the absent female and male bodies, motifs of games and childhood play, a multi-layered soundscape accompanies this anti-memorial that further mines the charged tensions between the intimate and the national. The primary layer of the soundscape consists of a mother and her two daughters alternately singing the Ring a Ring o' Roses rhyme. There is a stark contrast between the joyful innocence of the young girls singing and the sombre gravity of the grown woman’s voice.

In the distant background, historic independence speeches by the first heads of the states of India, Pakistan, Israel, and the Irish Republic can be heard. The speeches have been laid as background on the primary track, along with national anthems of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Israel, and Ireland. This is quite possibly the most complex soundscape I have made for any of my anti-memorials, but it helps to tie together the multiple histories of partitions included in this project.

Installation view, Remembering the Crooked Line: The Skin of the Nation 2009-10, 2022, Pritika Chowdhry | Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories | STIRworld
A closer view of Remembering the Crooked Line: The Skin of the Nation 2009-10, 2022, Pritika Chowdhry Image: Courtesy of South Asia Institute

Dilpreet: As an artist when it comes to the history of the 1947 partition and the ensuing occurrence of disturbing events, you see an unbroken flow of sectarian division and cultural conflict. Do you see the 1947 partition as a founding event that remains far from its closure?

Pritika: I feel that the 1947 partition is an unresolved trauma that continues to replay in the psychic body of the nation. I focus on this ongoing effect of the partition in my anti-memorial, Memory Leaks: Drips and Traces, in which I investigate the periodic eruptions of communal riots that seem to happen with uncanny regularity in India since the partition of 1947. I hypothesise that the trace memories of the intense and brutal partition violence continue to drip into the present day through the recurring communal riots.

The Memory Leaks anti-memorial consists of seventeen dharapatras etched with details of as many communal riots post-1947. Each dharapatra is etched with unending tally marks and the location of a significant Hindu-Muslim riot, and the year in which it occurred.

They are presented as a participatory, durational installation in which viewers are invited to pour water through the dharapatras and have the water drip out of the bottom of the vessels into the havankunds below. Each of the havans contains partially burnt books written in Urdu, the language spoken by Muslims in India and Pakistan.

The action of pouring water continuously animates the memories of the riots as the water leaks out drop-by-drop into the havankunds below. The memory of the partition is thus continually “leaking” and “dripping” into the present to recreate the same emotional reactions of fear, violence, and blame.

A closer view of The Crooked Lines, Game of Parchisi | Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories, Pritika Chowdhry | STIRworld
A closer view of The Crooked Lines, Game of Parchisi Image: Courtesy of South Asia Institute

Dilpreet: When the celebration of the 75 years of India’s independence overrides the importance to trace the memories of loss and experience of trauma endured by the families and generation who experienced the 1947 partition, 75-years back, what should be the final takeaway from viewing your exhibition Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories?

Pritika: Great question! Every year, the 15th of August is celebrated with much pomp and show in India, and especially this year is the 75th anniversary. The 1947 partition is the ghostly twin of the independence of India from British rule. In this cultural discourse of glorifying India and its history, how can we create a space to remember or memorialise the forced displacements, mass killings, and rapes of the 1947 partition riots?

And really, this is the biggest thing that I hope that the viewers who visit the South Asia Institute and see the art exhibition Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories, take away from the exhibit. I hope that viewers will be able to experience the complexity of this traumatic geopolitical event in an empathetic and compassionate manner in this immersive political art installation.

Pritika Chowdhry, A closer view of The Master’s Tongues | Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories | STIRworld
Pritika Chowdhry, a closer view of The Master’s Tongues Image: Courtesy of South Asia Institute

The exhibition Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories runs at South Asia Institute, Chicago until December 10, 2022.

Pritika Chowdhry | Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories | STIRworld
Artist Pritika Chowdhry Image: Courtesy of South Asia Institute
Pritika Chowdhry talks about the exhibition Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories Video: Courtesy of South Asia Institute

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